Is Hunter Pence Worth Huge $90 Million Contract from S.F. Giants?

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Is Hunter Pence Worth Huge $90 Million Contract from S.F. Giants?

In the midst of an awful season, the San Francisco Giants made a preemptive strike to secure their future place in the NL West standings by agreeing to re-sign right fielder Hunter Pence to a five-year, $90 million contract on Saturday.

The deal, reported by CSN Bay Area's Andrew Baggarly, rewards Pence for an outstanding 2013 in which he's played in every game and hit the to the tune of a .282/.339/.481 slash line. That production is good enough for a 136 OPS+ when factoring in the run-suppressing environment in San Francisco.  

Of course, what Pence has done is not necessarily a great indicator of what he will do over the next five seasons in the middle of the San Francisco order. For the Giants to get optimum value out of their commitment to Pence over the next five seasons, he'll have to stave off regression and continue to average over 3 WAR per season, if not his 4.2 mark of 2013, per Baseball-Reference.com.

At first glance, the deal seems to be an egregious overpay, but when looking at some recent contracts for corner outfielders, the deal simply becomes a risk for San Francisco. Unless Pence totally breaks down or reverts into a league average player in the very near future, the contract shouldn't cripple the Giants franchise.

As the following chart shows, Pence posted the fifth-highest adjusted OPS in the three years prior to signing the lucrative deal, yet only received the eighth-largest commitment. While it's easy to think that Pence wasn't worth $34-44 million more than the two players, Jason Bay and Nick Swisher, that he out-earned, his deal does not come across as an instant albatross either. 

Corner Outfielders Three-Year Run Prior to Contract
Player Years Age OPS+ Contract
Vernon Wells 2004-2006 25-27 113 7/126
Alfonso Soriano 2004-2006 28-30 115 8/136
Matt Holliday 2007-2009 27-29 143 7/120
Jason Bay 2007-2009 28-30 121 4/66
Carl Crawford 2008-2010 26-28 115 7/142
Jayson Werth 2008-2010 29-31 132 7/126
Matt Kemp 2009-2011 24-26 134 8/160
Josh Hamilton 2010-2012 29-31 147 5/125
Nick Swisher 2010-2012 29-31 125 4/56
Hunter Pence 2011-2013 28-30 126 5/90

Baseball-Reference

That look at the most recent lucrative deals to corner outfielders does come with caveats, though. As the 2013 season comes to a close, Pence is completing his age-30 season. His three years leading up to the massive payday occurred during his 28-, 29- and 30-year-old seasons, leaving San Francisco responsible for paying him through his early and mid-30s. 

In retrospect, major commitments to Vernon Wells and Matt Kemp by Toronto and Los Angeles, respectively, may have been mistakes, but those players were just entering their primes at the time of inking the deals in excess of $100 million. In theory, their clubs could have been predicting even better production before decline hit.

With Pence, 2013 is likely the baseline for his best. As a player who has never walked 100 times in a season or rated as a good defender (-3.1 dWAR for his career), age isn't likely to be as kind to him as a player like, say, Jayson Werth. When the Nationals gave Werth a $126 million deal after the 2010 season, eyebrows were raised, but the then-31-year-old arrived in D.C. as an excellent defender capable of playing center field as well as a corner, and had the plate discipline to thrive with age even if his physical skills eroded.

Many times, the success or failure of commitments like the new deal for Pence is measured in absolutes. While deals for Crawford, Soriano, Hamilton and Bay have been characterized as disasters and Holliday and Werth look to be successes, Pence's deal is likely to fall somewhere in the middle.

If the Giants expect a 4.2 WAR or better every season for the next five years, they've made a grave mistake. On the other hand, Pence is too solid and too durable to project as a player that will go in the tank early in the life of the contract.

Speaking of durability, Pence's ability to take the field on an everyday basis should give the Giants a reason to believe he'll provide value and production during this deal. Since his call-up in 2007, Pence has averaged 151 games per season. When looking at the entire league since 2008 (Pence's first full year in Houston), it's clear how durable Pence has been. 

Most Games Played Since Opening Day 2008
Rank Player Games
1 Prince Fielder 966
2 Robinson Cano 959
3 Adrian Gonzalez 955
4 Hunter Pence 946
5 Ichiro Suzuki 942
6 Miguel Cabrera 939
7 James Loney 937
8 Billy Butler 921
9 Dan Uggla 913
10 Alexei Ramirez 912

Baseball-Reference

The Giants didn't commit $90 million to a player on the verge of a breakout or with the ability to carry a team. Instead, they committed to a player who they can count on to play 150-plus games per season, bat in the middle of the order and hit 20-25 home runs. 

Hunter Pence never struck me as a $90 million player, but when looking at the recent history of corner outfielders and the steadying presence of this two-time All-Star, the Giants stand a better chance to get bang for their buck than many franchises have lately when signing over a check this large.

Is Hunter Pence worth $90 million?

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